I’ve been asked this question many times and I decided to write a blog post about it. I have studied many different languages at different levels but Italian and Spanish are likely to remain my strongest because I started learning them before all the others. The benefits of knowing both these languages to a good level has given me opportunities I would otherwise not have had, although Italian seems to have opened more doors to a variety of experiences for me.
I studied Spanish at university and Italian to a much lesser extent. After finding work within an international company in the finance department, I had the opportunity to move from working with our Spanish clients to the Italian ones. Firstly, I had to travel to Milan frequently for several months to work on a project and would return home at weekends. In Milan, I had to speak Italian the whole time from day one, but my level wasn’t so good then. I was dependent on my Spanish to help me learn fast. I bought myself a Spanish/Italian pocket dictionary because I found it quicker to think in Spanish and translate into Italian, rather than think in English first. This really helped. I also had some sympathetic colleagues who knew my Spanish was much better and I would say “I don’t know that word in Italian but it’s X in Spanish”. Most of the time they’d get what I wanted to say. In this period I discovered a lot about Italian body language which is worth another post by itself!
After around 3 months of working alongside native speakers, my level had reached the level of my Spanish. I remember when I arrived I could only understand about 20% of the television. By the end of the project, I could understand about 80% of the television. It was tough, I had headaches after work for several weeks until the language became more natural and I no longer had to really concentrate to understand. Following on from this project, I returned to work full-time in the UK alongside Italians and therefore still spoke the language for most of the day at work. It was during this period that I visited Sorrento and Sicily and was completely at ease speaking Italian the whole time. I was first exposed to the Sicilian language on this trip. The waiter at my hotel thought it would be fun to teach me some Sicilian phrases because I could already speak Italian. More on that later.
Fast forward a relocation and several job changes and I found myself in a UK company with one big customer in Italy. This customer had always had to communicate with our company using their only English-speaking employee. However, when I started there, I was given this account to manage and the customer was very surprised that now everything they needed to ask could be done in Italian. In fact, they wrote to one of the directors about this and I received an “Employee of the Month” award. I was not employed there for my language skills. This all happened by chance.
Now onto my personal life. As I mentioned above, I went on trips to Sorrento and Sicily. I continue to visit Italy on a regular basis and have been to many parts of the country: Venice, Rome, Sardinia, Florence, Pisa and soon Naples! I then found Italki, my favourite website where I can have skype lessons or just conversations in many languages. Of course, I started using it to maintain my level of Italian. By doing this, I met Eleonora, a tutor from Sicily. She told me that she also gave lessons in Sicilian and I started to think about my trip to Sicily 10 years earlier where the waiter was teaching me some phrases in Sicilian. I was tempted to learn more. I booked one lesson, then another and then that led to doing a dedicated 90 Day Language Challenge. By the end of that, I made a 15 minute video speaking with my tutor in Sicilian. My tutor did not speak English and with a lack of materials for Sicilian, I had to learn the language just by speaking on Skype and learning through Italian. I look forward to visiting Sicily again but this time being able to speak Sicilian when I am there!
Another Italian tutor I found on Italki was Marija and in one lesson I was telling her about my Sicilian challenge. She told me she was from a town near Naples and that her native language was actually Napulitano. “Uh oh”, I thought “I can’t resist knowing more and having some lessons”. So again I found myself booking an initial lesson in this mysterious and interesting language and again I managed to do a full 90 Day Challenge learning it. My videos were found by an Italian journalist who interviewed me about my challenges. It was most unusual for them to hear of a foreigner learning these smaller languages. Since my challenges, Italki actually opened up new language categories for Sicilian and Napulitano and my teachers tell me that they have gained many new students as a result of them finding my videos. Later on, I completed another course in Greko (Calabrian Greek).
As well as all the wonderful Italian friends I’ve made, I always seem to have these fun travel experiences as a result of knowing the language. For example, I got good service & early entry at the Leaning Tower of Pisa by ensuring I spoke to the staff in Italian whereas the tourists addressing them in English were being ignored and left in a long queue; I knew what was going on when we all got removed from a train near Sorrento whilst one English-speaking tourist thought he’d just shout at the train guard in English anyway; I was able to shock a taxi driver who kept pressing the meter button to overcharge a me as a foreign tourist, as she thought I probably couldn’t challenge her in Italian; I’ve had fabulous food because I’ve been able to discuss recommendations of local dishes in depth; I’ve been able to deal with medical problems in Italy and simple things such as needing directions. I even got myself an Egyptian Arabic book from Italy and learned it from Italian because I couldn’t find good enough resources on the English market.
Italian is one of my life-long companions. I highly recommend learning it and I look forward to many more years and fun experiences in the country and with the language. Who knows, maybe I’ll learn a few more of Italy’s minority languages in the future.
- Italki is the website where I find my tutors for my Skype lessons. Some lessons can cost just $5 for 30 minutes. You can register on this link here and after taking your first paid lesson, you will receive $10 of credits to use towards another lesson.
- For Sicilian resources please see this post here.
- For Napulitano/Neapolitan resources please see the comments in this post here.
- To read or listen to interviews I’ve done in Italian click here.
- A 3 Language Video I made in Italian, Catalan and Slovak (strongest to weakest!).